Everyone is healing up just fine since the battle for Earth's liberation.
They haven't gotten medical clearance to go back to active duty yet, and everyone is starting to get restless. That's how they all end up sitting around a table in the Garrison mess hall one evening, each with a cup of the last of the nunvil Coran was able to save from the castleship. (Shiro protests a little at first out of a sense of duty as the CO, but Coran argues that since it isn't technically alcohol, they aren't breaking any Earth laws.)
Lance suggests a drinking game, and the others agree. Coran and Allura are even excited to "participate in a native Earth ritual." Things start out pretty easy going, with little rivalries forming here and there and a few surprises along the way. Though the game was his idea, Lance's cup is the one running lowest already. Keith hasn't been keeping count, so he isn't entirely sure if it's because he's had to drink more times or if it's because he takes larger sips than the others. Either way, he seems to be fighting back by focusing solely on Keith, trying to wear down his drink ration.
"Never have I ever…" Lance looks around slyly, before pinning Keith with a devious grin. "…been kicked out of school!"
It's working, at least a little bit. Keith's head is just fuzzy enough to let him appreciate that spark in Lance's eyes every time he calls Keith out. To let him enjoy the subtle focus Lance always on him; the way Lance chases him. If he were legitimately drunk, maybe Keith would even want to be caught.
But he's not, so he just rolls his eyes exasperatedly, picks up his cup, and takes a sip. "You would have been," he raises his brow pointedly, "if the Garrison'd had a chance to after we rescued Shiro."
"Mmm yep, too bad they didn't," Lance simpers. But then, he double-takes. "Wait― Pidge?!"
Sure enough, Pidge is scowling as she brings her cup down from her lips.
"What?" she bites out testily, as if preemptively promising vengeance upon anyone who questions her. In her defense, Keith thinks, no one at this table has room to judge her; they've all been delinquents in various capacities throughout their journey.
Unfortunately, Voltron is full of daring people who don't know when to quit. That's practically their group motto.
"You're not talking about leaving with Blue, are you?" Lance pokes. "'Cause like I said, that totally doesn't count."
"No, you goody-two-shoes," Pidge glares. "Before that."
Shiro quirks a brow, and Hunk leans forward like he's about to ask the obvious question. Pidge seems to realize that this is going to be a whole thing, and just continues before anyone has a chance to say anything.
"I was a registered Garrison student under 'Katherine Holt,'" she explains, "before I got kicked out for snooping through Iverson's computer for info on the Kerberos mission. Why did you think I was going by Pidge Gunderson when I met you guys?"
"…Huh," Lance takes this in. "I guess… I hadn't really thought about it. Or I just assumed it was a gender identity thing, and wasn't gonna ask." He waves his hands, in a gesture that might be trying to communicate 'a whole lot of nebulous stuff.' In fact, it communicates nothing.
"That's… actually pretty sensitive of you," Pidge says.
At this, Lance immediately shifts to preening. Keith will never understand how he does it so fast. "Of course! I'm nothing if not―"
"Never have I ever fallen in love," Pidge interrupts with an absolute anvil of a statement, still out for blood.
There's a collective sigh, as every other person at the table drinks.
Even Keith does his part, tipping his cup back, and he doesn't think he's imagining the fixation Lance seems to suddenly have on the motion. Pidge, for her part, looks appropriately smug until she catches the somber looks on Allura and Shiro's faces. Keith makes a silent note to tread lightly along the topic of romance.
When his turn comes back around, he still feels the strange focus of Lance's gaze on him. Like he's expecting some kind of challenge. And Keith could get him back for his last volley; it would be as simple as "Never have I ever been handcuffed to a tree by someone I was flirting with." Honestly, Keith is surprised no one else has said it, yet.
But that's too easy, and Keith is too focused on trying to knock someone else's sobriety down a peg or two.
He thinks he finally has Shiro. He pierces the other man with a confident look and says, "Never have I ever died."
Shiro pouts, and does drink.
But from his other side, across the table, a faint, frustrated sigh drops out of Lance, and the Red Paladin also drinks.
What the hell?
Keith's brain blue-screens.
With wide eyes glued to Lance and his brows furrowed, he slowly reboots. Allura's gaze drops to the table, and Pidge and Hunk chatter in some kind of code he doesn't understand.
"Oh," Pidge is saying, "Was that when… with the…?"
"Yeah," Lance nods.
"The Omega Shield Station," Hunk finishes. "I didn't― I thought you just…"
But Keith still doesn't get it. This has to be some kind of a joke. Or… or a metaphor. Right? Lance loves hyperbole, after all. There's no way he'd actually… Lance always has his back, he claws his way to get there, even when Keith pushes him away. They always come back together, like binary stars in an elliptical orbit ― flung apart, gravitating back in close only to miss each other, just barely, over and over.
The idea that Lance's path would suddenly diverge from Keith's, so entirely and irreversibly, before they could… before what? Before they collide? Consume each other? Destroy each other?
Before nothing. It doesn't matter. This is unacceptable, regardless.
"I mean, I know it wasn't months like it was for Shiro," Lance is continuing, his eyes flitting briefly toward Keith. Keith realizes belatedly that he still has this vexed, disbelieving expression on his face. The one on Lance's is… he's smirking, but it's nervous. Anxious, maybe. Like he's trying to be light about it. Somehow, that makes it even worse. "It was only a couple minutes, but―"
"Dying of boredom or embarrassment doesn't count, right?" Keith interrupts teasingly. He knows it's kind of a mean taunt; he doesn't even know why he says it. He just… can't hear the rest of that sentence, if it's going to confirm what it sounds like. Everything in him refuses.
But instead of snapping at the bait, Lance's attempt at lightheartedness immediately ceases. His smile drops, and something heavy and cold falls between them, spreading its way all around the table.
Finally, Lance sighs again, leaning back in his chair. "Right, whatever." Then he gets to his feet, planting his cup down with finality. "I'm out of nunvil, anyway. Guess I lost!" He laughs. "I'm gonna go pass out, see you guys tomorrow."
He wanders out of the room.
Keith stands too, almost ready to go after him, when Shiro speaks up. "Keith, hang on."
"What the hell was that?" Keith asks.
"You should talk to him about this when you're sober."
"And maaaybe apologize," Hunk adds.
"It's my fault," Allura interjects, eyes still trained to the table surface. "I was in danger. He pushed me out of the way, and took a high-energy electrical discharge in my stead."
"I had no idea," Pidge says. "I was a little busy dealing with Shiro ― well, Shiro's clone."
"I knew something was up, I mean, he wasn't responding on comms, but… I thought he was just knocked out, to be honest," Hunk says.
"I had hoped so too, at first," Allura replies. "But when I got to him, his body was entirely unresponsive. He… he had no pulse."
"No," Keith says simply.
"I was able to pull his quintessence back to his body, with some help from the Red Lion, but… if I had not gotten to him so quickly, or if the Red Lion had not been able to keep his quintessence contained…"
"No," Keith insists, even while the others continue to discuss it.
His world is tilting on its axis. From the very beginning of this journey, it was always Lance and Keith. Lance said so himself ― Lance and Keith, neck and neck. Saving Shiro, arguing over battle strategies, helping each other when they're stuck, competing over who's braver, who could hit more drones, who could go faster, farther, who could rescue the other more times. Lance is supposed to always be there, at his back. Keith can't fathom how close he was, without even knowing it, to one day turning around to find Lance not there.
This dance of getting close to each other and then drawing away before anything really happens, was supposed to go on forever. Maybe unacknowledged, but unending nevertheless.
Should Keith… acknowledge it?
Maybe this is just another reason he shouldn't. They're soldiers; anything can happen. Lance might really not make it out of one of their next battles, or maybe Keith won't. Wouldn't it hurt worse to confront Lance, to make an effort to solidify whatever might be between them, only to have it ripped apart? Wouldn't it be more selfish, especially if Keith is the one to be killed in action?
And even if they both survive the coming mission, what about afterwards? Keith has only barely started to trust himself as a leader, with Lance as his right-hand man. He doesn't know how to be responsible for his own future. He's only good at leaving, restlessly drifting through space, searching ― for a past, a purpose, a home, to call his own ― for whatever intangible thing his heart has latched onto, insatiable. But Lance…
Lance already has a home, on Earth. Didn't he want to settle down here? With Mrs. Blue Lion? Mrs. Red Lion? And bask in the glory of being a hero?
Keith only realizes he's walking out of the room when he's stopped by Shiro's hand on his shoulder. Keith makes some vague assurance that he's not going after Lance, just going to bed. He makes good on his word and ends up in his room, but finds that he can't sleep, even with the nunvil making him hazy and tired.
He imagines it.
He imagines continuing on as he has been, not disrupting the status quo between him and Lance. Maybe apologizing for his insensitive joke tonight, but not pursuing anything deeper. Doing their duty, as friends, as comrades, going into battle to save the universe.
He imagines Lance dying. His body was entirely unresponsive. He… he had no pulse. He tries to imagine himself afterwards, and already he vividly feels how everything unsaid between them, all the what-ifs, seem to congeal into a sludge that settles into the bottom of his soul. He imagines trying to forget, or trying to find something or someone to distract him, but it's obvious that nothing else would ever be able to fill those spaces inside him again. He imagines throwing himself into his work, whatever that ends up being, while this feeling of despair inflates inside him, swells up to his throat, and strangles him.
He imagines himself dying, instead. He wonders if those same things would settle inside Lance. If Lance would feel even a tiny bit like Keith would. Maybe he wouldn't; maybe he would just grieve and move on. Keith can't really know.
So he imagines them both surviving, coming out of this battle and going on to live the rest of their lives. Lance on Earth, and Keith somewhere in space. Talking to each other on comms now and then, maybe seeing each other face-to-face if Keith ever visits. He imagines time passing; how, year by year, they might drift further and further apart, like galaxies under the influence of dark energy, and how their stubborn dance might eventually lose to exhaustion. How the stack of what-ifs and unspoken confessions would build up inside Keith, getting taller and taller. How, instead of finding peace, he'd become more and more desperate even while he and Lance talk less and less. How eventually the embers between them wouldn't spark, even if they tried. How the towering sludge would spoil and decay and morph into a horrible monster, and eat Keith alive while growling "You wasted your chance."
This, of all possibilities, aches in Keith's chest the most. Nothing could possibly be worse than this regret.
No, he thinks.
The next day, they're finally cleared for duty again, but with instructions to take it easy. No intensive training, no combat, if possible. They don't even have any meetings until 14:00 hours.
Keith goes looking for Lance.
He eventually finds him in the flight bay with the Lions, sitting on Red's paw, typing away on his comm, now and then pausing with unfocused eyes, as if communing with Red.
It's still strange to see him in the orange Garrison uniform, instead of his blue Paladin armor or the plainclothes he'd kept in space. Keith recalls how indignant Lance had been that Keith didn't remember him right away when they rescued Shiro, at the start of all this. He wonders if this is how Lance had looked when they were in flight classes together, and how many times Lance might have looked at him. It's almost reflexive for Keith to feel young and anxious remembering those days, wearing this uniform… But he tamps it down. Both he and Lance have grown so much; maybe he wouldn't have approached Lance when they were students here, but now―
"Lance," he says, as he nears Red.
"K-Keith!" Lance looks up, surprised and flailing slightly. "Shit, man, don't sneak up on me like that!"
Keith smirks as he continues to close the distance between them. "Didn't know it took so little effort."
Lance rolls his eyes. "Yeah well, I wasn't exactly on my guard, okay?" He jumps down, and Red lowers her head and jaw as he moves toward her. "What do you even want? I wasn't expecting the big boss man to come looking for me. We sneaking out to run forbidden drills, or what?"
"No," Keith says, hands in his pockets, following Lance. "I just wanted to talk to you."
"Huh?" That makes Lance pause and turn, halfway up Red's ramp. His brows furrow, and Keith sees his look turn wary for just a split second before he turns back to continue into his Lion. "Okay, sure. What's up?"
"Well, first off," Keith starts, "I'm sorry. For last night."
Lance mutters something that Keith doesn't catch, and then sighs, just like he did the night before. "Man, it's whatever. Don't worry about it."
"It's not 'whatever.' It's… I only said that because I―"
"Was kinda drunk?"
"―No," Keith scoffs. Then amends, "Maybe a little, but that's not― I said it because I just didn't wanna hear what you were saying." Lance isn't facing him, and Keith knows he deserves it. "I was being selfish. I shouldn't have blown you off, or turned it into teasing you."
They're in the cockpit now, and Lance is quiet for a second as he moves from one control panel to another. "Well, you can be done hearing it now. It's over. I'm fine, buddy."
But it doesn't feel over, to Keith. He's still reeling from the image in his mind of turning around to find Lance gone. "What can I do," Keith tries, "to make sure that never happens again?"
"What, you saying some dumb shit during a drinking game? Or me dying?" Lance chuckles, seemingly distracted by checking gauges on Red's HUD. "Because, I hate to break it to you, but we're all gonna die at some point. In my case, hopefully in old age, on a beach, surrounded by―"
"Oh c'mon, dude. Are you really gonna be all leader-y about this?" Lance finally turns to him, with his hands on his hips and a petulant scowl on his face. "We're Paladins. I get that you feel like it's your responsibility to make sure we all make it out alive, but if some situation comes up and it's down to me or the fate of the universe, you can't seriously tell me we shouldn't compromise." Lance starts back toward the door, heading toward the hull. Keith continues to follow.
"Is that what you were thinking at that shield station?" Keith blurts.
Lance stops in the hallway. "Keith," he says, warningly. "Come on. Let's not do this."
The space is cramped and a little dark, lit only by Red's internal running lights. Keith has never really been uncomfortable in Red before, but right now he sort of feels like he's boxing himself in. Like if he keeps going, he'll be trapped, in exactly the conversation he's been avoiding for so long. "Do what?"
"You know exactly 'what,' you hypocrite."
"What? No, I'm trying to―"
"Naxzela, dude," Lance interrupts, a tint of anger in his timbre. "Is that what you were thinking?"
"Voltron was in trouble," Keith defends immediately, automatically. He knew there had been a group briefing afterwards, between rebels, the Blade, and Team Voltron, and that Lance knew. But he thought― He hadn't actually died, he'd gotten out, so it wasn't the same, right? But the way Lance is bringing it up, maybe it was a lot more similar than Keith had considered. "You guys ― you were the only family I had, and you were all going to die. The universe needs you, a lot more than it needs one Blade of Marmora."
Lance throws his arms up in a gesture of futility. "And the universe needs Allura a lot more than it needs me! The Lions are tied to her life force; she practically is Voltron. She's way more important than I am in―"
"Not to me."
Keith says it decisively, his hands balled into fists at his sides. His whole body is overflowing with conviction, and he refuses to take it back or play it down, even as a flush floods his cheeks. It's a confession in itself. There's no way Lance can misconstrue it.
But that doesn't mean he'll acknowledge it, either. He looks… conflicted. The expression on his face is inscrutable, and he's utterly silent. He might be shocked, or uncertain he just heard Keith right. Or, like Keith had been, perhaps he's resolutely determined to play dumb. There's even a chance, though it seems far fetched, that everything between them has been in Keith's head this whole time, and this is entirely out of left field for Lance. It doesn't really matter.
For Keith, there's no going back, now.
"Don't," Lance says, averting his face.
"No, shut up," Lance's voice is low, almost a growl, like an animal backed into a corner.
"You don't even know what I'm―"
"I don't wanna know!" he spits, even though he's making it pretty obvious that he already does. It hasn't all been in Keith's head.
Keith takes a step forward, leaning in as Lance leans back. His tone is careful. "Why not?" If Lance really doesn't want to talk about this, Keith won't force him. But he'd decided, last night, that he has to at least try.
"Because!" Lance's shoulders hunch up, and he won't look Keith in the eye. "No matter what you say, you're just gonna move on to the next stupidly cool thing the first chance you get, and I'm gonna be left here staring at the back of your stupid head again, just like always―"
"No, I―" Keith shakes his head. "I'm not gonna leave you behind." He takes a step closer, but Lance still takes a step back. "If you―"
"You will, you always will, that's the one consistent thing about you. You're so fucking―"
"Yes, you! Every time I think we have some kind of understanding, some kind of mutual thing going on, you turn around and say something like 'I just don't wanna be stuck here for eternity with Lance.' God, even though Allura always turns me down, at least she's reliable about it!"
"You wanna talk about inconsistent?" Keith jabs back. Lance isn't wrong, but Keith can't believe he's getting called out on it when it's like the pot calling the kettle black. "How about, 'I think he's the future,' followed by, 'You ran away, maybe you should have just stayed away!'"
Lance makes a frustrated noise, and bumps his elbow on the wall. "Ow! Fuck― Dude, we were all going space crazy just drifting out there, I was just pissed, we all said stuff we didn't mean―"
"You meant it."
"You did, and you were right," Keith presses forward, and this time when Lance bumps against the wall Keith cages him in there. "I did run away. I've been running away."
"You went looking for clues about your mom. Are you really gonna beat yourself up about it now?"
"That wasn't the only reason I left," Keith tells him. "That was a big part of it, but― I was afraid, too. Of trying to fit somewhere I didn't belong, and letting you guys down. Especially when you came to me ― remember? ― saying there were too many Paladins, and you were thinking of stepping down. And I already felt like maybe I didn't belong there, but you and Shiro definitely did, so―"
"I would have been fine if you―"
"―So I ran away. And Naxzela ― that was me running away, too. And even after I came back, I kept running, just… differently. Keeping everybody at arm's length, saying stupid shit to push you away whenever we got too close, and then letting you get close again, over and over. I kept thinking I could just hold out, and then when everything was done, even if I didn't belong anywhere it would be fine. I could just go somewhere, anywhere, and keep looking―"
"Of course you would!" Lance slams his fists against Keith's chest. "That's what you do!"
"I don't want to anymore! It's just―" He tries to collect himself a little, to say what he really wants to say before Lance gets too frustrated to listen at all. "I've been running away for so long, I haven't figured out how not to yet―"
"So what?! I've been chasing after you since I was fourteen, but you really think I won't figure out how to stop?!"
"I'm terrified that you will!" Keith's voice breaks. Both of them are taken aback for a short pause by the raw, exposed passion of Keith's admission. "I know… we've been doing this for a long time now. And I thought I could be satisfied with it. Never saying anything. Maybe forever. But the truth is, I'm so much more scared of losing you―"
"―than of not belonging with you. I can't stand the thought of you not being by my side, if that's where you wanna be―"
"Please," Lance begs again, eyes shining in the red light, wide and desperate. "Please shut up, I can't― If you don't, I'll… I'll…"
But his hands are fisted in Keith's collar, clutching him close.
Keith doesn't understand. It's like Lance is already so convinced that there's no stopping Keith from running away again that he won't let Keith promise him otherwise, and yet he can't help but try to hold Keith there with him however possible. Lance's own body betrays how fervently he wants Keith to prove him wrong.
"Fine. I won't say any more," Keith relents.
He leans the rest of the way in, and despite everything, Lance lets him.
It's messy and needy; Keith doesn't know how to kiss any other way. Keith doesn't know how to kiss at all, but with Lance's mouth here, against his, every fiber of him yearns, and his mouth figures out the rest. He tilts his head and slides his lips against Lance's again, more open, and when Lance kisses him back it feels like puzzle pieces slipping into place. Between them, and inside Keith's heart. It feels right. He adjusts to bring one of his hands over to cup Lance's jaw, and opens his mouth to kiss Lance deeper.
Lance sobs. Keith starts to pull back ― was he wrong? Is he forcing himself on Lance? Does Lance not want this? But before he has a chance to put any real space between them, Lance pulls him back in by the collar and kisses him with an ardent hunger that matches Keith's, flame to flame.
And right as Keith starts to feel like he's maybe catching up, Lance flies ahead again, shoving off the wall and pushing Keith back toward the other side until he's the one pinned. Giving Keith no time to recover, Lance kisses him again with that deep urgency, like Keith still might be torn away from him at any second. Keith tries his best to assure him wordlessly that he wants to stay exactly where he is. He threads both of his hands into Lance's hair, encouraging him. He tilts his own head further, and lets Lance's tongue into his mouth. He feels Lance's longing, takes it in, and does his best to give his own back to Lance.
"Fuck," Lance breathes between kisses. Keith's eyes open for an instant to see Lance's dark and close, before closing the distance to kiss again. "You're gonna break my heart so bad."
"No I won't," Keith says.
Lance's thumbs trace Keith's jaw as it opens for another kiss. Another. "You've already broken it like eighty times, man."
Their kisses start to ramp down in intensity, becoming more tender, but no less deep. "I don't want to anymore."
"Tch," Lance scoffs, but continues to kiss Keith anyway. "Good luck."
Keith tapers off another gentle kiss. "Let me prove it."
Lance sighs, finally breaking off to rest their foreheads together and look Keith in the eyes. Keith lets his hands fall down to Lance's waist, wrapping securely around his back. Keeps him close. Makes sure Lance knows, if not from his words then from his body language and the sincerity of his eyes, he's not going to run away from this. Ever again.
He wants to do this together. The rest of the war. The rest of his life, probably, however long that may be.
"Fine," Lance says.
When they walk into the conference room at 14:00, all eyes are on them. Specifically, their hands, linked between them. It's maybe not that appropriate in a work meeting in front of so many Garrison officials, including the MFE pilots, but there's no simpler, more efficient way to make a statement to all the people who matter.
Keith grips Lance's hand tighter, and to Keith's credit Lance is actually blushing much harder than he is.
Pidge, who had been saying something to Shiro, adjusts her glasses. "Oh," she says.
Shiro smiles at them both as they move around to take their seats, and one by one they see the realization and relief on their friends' faces.
Iverson, mercifully, lets it slide, and begins the meeting. This is it, Keith thinks.
No more sacrifices. No more running.